My UEA Story: Professor Frances Bowan
Chance has played a significant role from the beginning of Frances’ career. After completing her Master’s degree in Economics at Northeastern University (Boston, USA), she moved back to the UK and applied for three jobs found in the Economist magazine. She was invited for interviews for all three: one working as a civil servant in the Government Economic Service, one as a trainee tax advisor at PwC, and one as a research assistant at the School of Management at the University of Bath. “The University role was my first interview. I showed up, got the job, took it and didn’t attend the others. I could have been a civil servant, consultant, accountant or academic…it’s all down to one choice, taken twenty years ago”.
“I’ve never made a fully planned move, but spontaneous moves; accepting jobs on a whim. I’ve been fortunate to never have had change forced on me, but unexpected opportunities arose, such as an Associate Dean leaving their role. If you feel like you need change, sometimes it’s better to take it without examining it too much”.
Whilst Frances acknowledges that it may seem daunting to take a chance in career paths, “some colleagues will really give huge amounts of thought as to whether a step is the right opportunity. For me, it’s never worked out badly, and a positive outcome can give you the confidence to give it a go the next time. People sometimes worry if they don’t have a plan. My advice is to just try and understand what you like doing. Get to know yourself well”.
She regards her immediate colleagues as a source of “everyday inspiration” and “colleagues who are 3-5 years ahead” as role models of sorts, showing the path to the next career step: as a student, looking to PhD study; and as a new Lecturer, looking to Senior Lecturers and Professors for insight; and later to more senior academic leaders.
“It’s important to keep talking and listening to people, both in similar and different situations to your own. You will develop intuition. This can apply to the more mechanical career rules, such as how to get a paper accepted to a particular journal, or it can be the bigger picture, such as the politics within an organisation; how it fits together; what you can and can’t change. Communication of all types is key, in all aspects of academia”.
UK Higher Education is increasingly breaking down barriers for those wishing to study or work in academia. Frances was the first in her family to go to University, attaining a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. Whilst not experiencing any notable personal hurdles, she “felt outside of things for longer than other people”.
“I’m a Welsh kid from The Valleys, a woman, an out lesbian, and also these days a privileged Professor. Each of these things can change the way you’re seen by people. I wouldn’t want to represent everyone in these groups as my experience may be entirely different to theirs, so intersectionality is very important when addressing inclusion. I now feel very much an insider. It’s possibly easy to forget how far you’ve travelled – at the beginning, I may have been in some kind of social shock but didn’t know it, and just carried on!”
Now a leader herself, a positive attitude has helped enormously: “it can get you a long way in university leadership. With so much bad news and negative press in the HE sector, relentless positivity can get you 90% of the way there. You also need a bit of realism, but this type of job is best for people who are ‘glass half full’ or can approach it in that way”.